Miami-Dade group stresses need to restore voting Sunday before Election Day

Miami-Dade County wants more early-voting days — but how many more is up for debate.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his appointed elections supervisor, Penelope Townsley, asked the Florida secretary of state earlier this week to consider supporting restoration of 14 voting days, up from the eight days offered this year.

But a county election advisory group agreed Friday to ask state lawmakers for only one more day of early voting: the Sunday before Election Day.

“I’m not sure that you’re going to get 14 days out of the state Legislature,” Gimenez conceded.

The 13-member group was split on what length of time to recommend to county commissioners, who will vote Tuesday on their state legislative priorities for the annual session in Tallahassee next spring.

The county elections department proposed returning to the 14 early-voting days offered before Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a new law last year that reduced the number of days to eight. The maximum number of hours offered stayed the same on the books, though in practice early voting was extended in 2008.

The 2011 law, passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, guaranteed one Sunday of early voting but prohibited voting the Sunday before Election Day, which Democratic-leaning African-Americans had long used as a day to bring “souls to the polls.”

About 90,000 fewer Miami-Dade voters cast early ballots in 2012 as compared to 2008, according to the elections department.

Yet several members of the advisory group convened by Gimenez, a Republican, said the long voting lines in last month’s presidential election — when some Miami-Dade voters waited up to seven hours to cast their ballots — were caused by more than the reduction in early-voting days.

“The problem wasn’t a problem of days,” said Commissioner Lynda Bell, a Republican. “It was a problem of sites.”

A majority of the group, including several Democrats, eventually agreed to request only one more day of early voting, acknowledging that legislators might be hesitant to move back to two weeks. The group said it could live with a work week and two full weekends, including the Sunday before Election Day.

The nine-day recommendation may run into trouble when it heads to the commission next week. The board has already approved a resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Barbara Jordan, imploring the state to bring back 14 early-voting days. Commissioner Jean Monestime has a similar measure scheduled for a vote Tuesday.

Separately, the advisory group also recommended urging lawmakers to allow counties to open early-voting sites at more locations than just elections offices, public libraries and city halls. Miami-Dade, which has usually opened 20 early-voting sites, has been making that request since 2006.

Townsley said the county has 74 potential early-voting sites under the existing law: two elections offices, 34 city halls and 38 libraries. (Another 11 libraries are storefronts without room to house a polling place).

“But some of those aren’t really good,” Gimenez said, citing limited space and parking.

Counties determine the number of sites they open for early voting, based on local funding.

The group also recommended that the state:

• Limit the number of words printed on state constitutional amendments on the ballot, holding them to the same length as county charter amendments. The county caps its ballot measures at 75 words.

• Extend the time for counties to tally absentee ballots, which have become increasingly popular, to 20 days from 15 days prior to Election Day. Miami-Dade finished counting the ballots two days after the Nov. 6 election, citing a surge in ballots received in the last two days.

• Eliminate the term “absentee ballot” and replace it with “vote by mail.” The mayor has endorsed this change, saying absentee voting is a misnomer because Florida no longer requires that voters provide a reason — such as being ill or out of town — for voting by mail.

The group decided against backing two other elections department proposals to remove political party executive committeeman and committeewoman races from the primary ballot, and to require that community development district elections for special taxing districts be carried out only by mail.

The department will still include those suggestions as part of its state legislative package being sent to commissioners for their approval .

The advisory group will make more recommendations for county-level changes after the elections department releases its “after-action” report on the election next week.